South Asian voters sue Hamtramck, MI for alleged voting rights violations

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On June 3, 2021, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) sued the City of Hamtramck, Michigan for failing to comply with the language assistance provisions (Section 203) of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The AALDEF complaint alleges that Rahima Begum, one of the Bengali-speaking plaintiffs, could not participate in the electoral process equally with other citizens because of the City’s failure to comply with Section 203 of the VRA. Instead, she had to rely on her English-speaking bilingual children to assist her with the voting process.

“Ms. Begum would have been able to effectively exercise her right to vote, and independently cast a fully-informed ballot, if Hamtramck and its City Clerk had complied with their obligations under Section 203,” AALDEF contends.

“AALDEF will always fight to ensure that all provisions of the Voting Rights Act are fully complied with. The federal requirements of the VRA are not voluntary, but mandatory – and no state or city is free to discard the requirements that so many fought and died for,” Jerry Vattamala, director of AALDEF’s Democracy Program, is quoted saying in the press release.

The Census Bureau announced on October 13, 2011 that Hamtramck, MI was covered under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and required to provide Bengali language assistance to voters. The Census Bureau’s determination applies to all elections administered by Hamtramck and is final and not reviewable by any court, the suit alleges.

However, despite being covered for almost a decade, Hamtramck failed to provide fully and accurately translated ballots during the Primary and General Elections in 2020, say plaintiffs.

“For example, the translation of the general election sample ballot was completely nonsensical, and only the Republican party primary ballot was available to voters for most of the day,” according to the press release from AALDEF.

The City Clerk’s election website provides no Bengali translation whatsoever, including no translated voting information regarding absentee ballots, voter registration, election dates, and other election information, the suit alleges. In addition, the City failed to provide Bengali interpreters or a sufficient number of bilingual poll workers to assist limited English proficient (LEP) Bengali American voters, plaintiffs say.

On April 20, 2020, AALDEF sent a letter to the former Hamtramck City Clerk, August Glitschlag, detailing the alleged violations under Section 203 and demanded that the City immediately comply with the federal requirements.

“Hamtramck had ample notice and opportunity to comply with federal law on behalf of its Bengali American citizens, yet failed to do so. AALDEF did not receive a response to its April 20, 2020 demand letter,” the organization says.

Senior Staff Attorney of AALDEF’s Democracy Program Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, said, “Asian Americans have had to overcome many barriers to exercise their right to vote, especially due to the lack of language assistance. Hamtramck must comply with all provisions of the Voting Rights Act and fully translate all voting material, including their website, and provide sufficient numbers of interpreters or bilingual poll workers at all poll sites.”

The complaint seeks to enjoin the City of Hamtramck and the City Clerk from failing to provide translated Bengali language voting materials and assistance, and requiring that the City ensure that LEP Bangladeshi Americans are able to participate effectively in all phases of the electoral process, in full compliance with Section 203.

Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter is pro bono counsel in this lawsuit.

In 2013, AALDEF sued the Board of Elections in the City of New York for failing to provide Bengali ballots in Queens County, New York, which is the only other county in the country covered for Bengali language assistance under Section 203 of the VRA. The Board of Elections settled the case in 2014.

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